Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dram: The Independent Republic of Uzupis

Uzupis1Another charming and intriguing aspect of Vilnius is that it is home to The Independent Republic of Uzupis. Seriously!... sort of. Uzupis -- which means "on the other side of the river" -- is a district of Vilnius which was especially run down after "the Soviet days" and was therefore particularly cheap to inhabit. It became popular with artists and other "free spirits" who declared their independence from Lithuania on April 1, 1997. As the date may give you a clue, this "independence" is technically an April Fool's joke, but it is spiritually robust and gives the district a unique character. As with many such areas, it has since become a very popular place to live for those who are less "artsy" and more affluent, so it has become a chic and very expensive area of the city. Nevertheless, it retains much of its bohemian aesthetic and takes itself somewhat seriously, under the patient aegis and remarkably good humored countenance of the actual government of Vilnius and Lithuania.

Uzupis2The Republic's Constitution, posted prominently in three languages, is comprised of 41 Articles ranging from the "serious" -- e.g. "Everyone may be independent" and "No one has the right to violence" -- to the "abstract" -- e.g. "Everyone has the right to be happy" and "Everyone has the right to be unhappy" -- and even to the "quirky" -- e.g. "A dog has the right to be a dog" and "A cat is not obligated to love its owner, but must help in time of need" -- which are some of my personal favorites. Among the Republic's charming customs is that when couples marry they put a lock on one of the bridges that lead across the river to signify their commitment to the institution. Most of these locks are inscribed with names and dates, memorializing the nuptial individuals for all to see. The tradition of throwing the key in the river speaks, I suspect, either to the fact that this is an almost exclusively Catholic country or to the availability of strong bolt cutters.

Uzupis3As you might imagine, the "egg" scenario I wrote about in the previous Dram originated in Uzupis, and the statue you see here was the first to be "hatched." Considering the Soviet oppression from which Lithuania has emerged as a nation -- and the cloud of despair it continues to struggling to work its way out of -- I found it both remarkable and encouraging to see the spirit of independence so enthusiastically -- even if whimsically -- displayed within its capital city. The Republic of Uzupis is a delightful part of Vilnius -- an absolute "must" on the list of places to visit here -- and a prominent example of why I have found this city to be one of the most interesting places I have been. To quote the last three Articles of the Uzupis Constitution: "Do not defeat. Do not fight back. Do not surrender."

Monday, October 29, 2007

Dram: Strike A Pose And The Egg Will Hatch

Strikeposeegg1You may be wondering why I am posting a photo of an empty city square. Well, the reason goes something like this: Just one of the many fascinating things about Vilnius, Lithuania is that throughout the city there are numerous squares which were obviously designed to feature monuments or statues, but practically none of them actually have any. It turns out that after independence -- after "the Soviet days" -- virtually all off the Soviet monuments were torn down, leaving their former locations empty. It takes time, of course, to decide what should be erected in their place -- not to mention time to raise the necessary funds and to commission the works -- so most of the spaces have been empty for a few years and will continue to remain so for some time to come. It's an odd sight to the new visitor, but once you know the story it becomes a rather charming little aspect of this intriguing city.

Strikeposeegg2During my exploration, I came across this puzzling little monument. I didn't pay much attention to it at first -- chalking it up as either a joke or some kind of tribute to something that I didn't know about -- but it's relative rarity as an actual, existing monument caught my attention and I decided to pursue it's origin and significance. As far as I could piece together, the egg appeared one day -- atop a pedestal elsewhere in the city -- and remained there for a few months. Apparently, people were unaware of its meaning or significance and proceeded to concoct all manner of stories about it. Then suddenly one day, a new statue appeared in its place and everyone understood. The egg signified that a new statue was being "incubated" and would soon arrive in this location. So, where you currently see the egg, you know a statue is on its way. The egg will then appear somewhere else in the city, and you will know that a monument is in the works for that location. How cute is that?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Logbook: Warsaw Weekend

Warsawweekend1I was up and moving pretty early on Friday morning, and with a fond "See you later!" to my good friends at my fabulous little hotel I walked the few blocks to the train station to catch my ride to Warsaw. As is my custom, I was there with about a half hour to spare before scheduled departure time, which turned out to be a really good thing. Taking another look at my ticket I finally noticed that what I thought was a "26" -- as in "26.10.2007" -- was actually a poorly printed "25". That's right, after going through all the effort to get my ticket in advance so I wouldn't have to scramble the morning of my departure, I had misread the date and my ticket was for Thursday, not Friday. By now you must certainly realize that this is just "one of those things" that happens every day on The Voyage and that I look on them simply as opportunities for "unexpected exploration." So, into the mob at the ticket counter I went, negotiated as best I could a replacement ticket and went to the platform. The Gdynia train station is functional not elegant -- though the grass growing among the tracks is a nice touch -- and the rolling stock is much the same. At some point, the infrastructure of the country is going to have to be upgraded, but for now although the trains are old and slow, they work well enough and pretty reliably -- if not fashionably -- get you where you want to go. In my case, the train delivered me to Warsaw a little over six hours later.

Warsawweekend2_2Arriving in Warsaw's central train station is not the cheeriest of experiences, owing to the dark, dirty condition of it's dismal bare concrete design. This lack of aesthetic is something I am becoming very aware of in Poland, and I attribute it to the generally low expectations of a nation that has historically been poor, badly treated by conquering forces and focused more on surviving than thriving. In this context, it is no wonder that things are "functional not elegant." So, it was with some surprise that I emerged from the underground station and first viewed the building shown here, with its rather obvious excess of ornamentation. I later learned that it is the "cultural center" -- comprised of museums, concert halls, etc. -- and was built by the Soviets during their occupation -- er... time of governance -- to express to the Poles that "We're really not such bad people!" It is a fairly unique structure in the cityscape, with the majority of other buildings being in the typical Soviet-Era, rough concrete, no-frills style. There are now also a few steel and glass buildings in Warsaw, so the combination of styles can be a little perplexing to a visitor. Undaunted, I made my way a few blocks to my hotel, then did my usual routine of checking in, dumping my gear and hitting the streets. After an hour or so of working my way amid dense throngs, dingy streets and chaotic commercial concourses I was pretty "full" so I called it a day. At this point in The Voyage my stamina for exploring strange lands and people is pretty high, but pacing myself remains an important factor.

Warsawweekend3Yesterday morning I got up early and decided to increase my "exploration efficiency" by taking a half-day tour of the city. It was well worth it, not only because it was very informative in a short time but also because it was an easy way to get around a fairly large area and because I met a few interesting folks (including a young man from Tallinn, Estonia who has offered to be a resource for me when I get there in another week or so!) On the tour we visited many of the city's most popular attractions, including the central park with its many monuments -- especially a beautiful one to Chopin that you can see in the Photos -- and historical buildings, the "Ghetto Uprising" memorial, the old fortress walls and "The World's Youngest Old Town." This last point brings up something that I was unable to completely figure out: We were told that except for a couple of buildings, Warsaw was completely destroyed in WWII, yet there are many, many "historical" buildings and monuments. I think I understand that many of these were rebuilt in their "original" form after the War, but I'm not sure. For certain, though, the "Old Town" was completely rebuilt in traditional style which does, in fact, make it "The World's Youngest Old Town." To my taste, it is a little cliche, overdone and touristy, but every major city has to have its attractions, right? Also on the tour, I got an even better sense of how Poland -- as I mentioned above -- is a country that has really been poorly treated in history. For centuries, invading forces have conquered the territory, subjugated the people and re-written their history. The cities have repeatedly been destroyed, historical heros have been re-cast as evil villains and -- perhaps most ironic of all -- even their "liberators" often became their "enslavers." Imagine how you might feel if you survived the almost complete destruction of your country and economy during WWII, only to find yourself a disdained stepchild of Soviet Communism. Bummer! As I learn more and more about Polish history, I have a growing appreciation for the inherent spirit of the Poles and an even stronger sense of enthusiasm for what their future may have in store. Even if many Polish people are not particularly optimistic about their country, themselves and their future, I am.

I spent the rest of the day wandering around, checking things out, finding some travel info for the Baltics and getting my train ticket -- for the right day! -- going forward. I called it an early night with the intention of sleeping in and having a "relaxed city Sunday." As you may have already guessed by my use of the word "intention" it didn't quite work out that way. Through the window I had left open all day, a large number of aggressive mosquitos got into my room -- presumably from the garden three floors down, but quite surprisingly given the cold temperature of the season. Either way, I woke up after only an hour of sleep with a number of stinging bites and spent most of the night tracking down and killing the beasts. (It was a haunting reprise of another really bad night you may recall I had way back in Zocalo, Mexico City!) The net result is that I got very little sleep and am pretty groggy today, so my "relaxed city Sunday" has been a little more like a day of "recovery." It's all good, though, and my Warsaw weekend has been satisfactory. I can't say I really like the city -- you know I don't particularly like large cities anyway -- but I'm glad to have visited briefly and gotten the gist of it.

I've kept the window closed all day in an effort to keep the mosquito beasts at bay and I hope to get a good night's sleep before my early morning start on an all day train ride to Vilnius, Lithuania. Stay tuned to find out what happens!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Logbook: Baltic Bound

BalticboundIt's been a good week on The Voyage with highlights from last weekend including the spontaneous gathering of the "Gdansk Gang" on Saturday night that I wrote about earlier and a Sunday afternoon dinner with Captain Adam and his entire family. I was honored to be included in their celebration as the Captain prepares to go back to sea for a few months, and it was a very welcome change of pace to have a delicious home cooked meal with family. On Tuesday evening I got together again with Elke and Gustavo to continue our "world voyagers" conversations which turned out to be a great time of comparing notes and brainstorming some shared issues. Besides those get-togethers, I have spent time enjoying my home here in Gdynia and getting myself caught up, rested and ready to move on.

I had "planned" to head generally south from Gdynia to explore Poland then continue to and through Slovakia on my way to Vienna. In poring over the maps, however, I kept looking at the Baltic States and wondering what they are like. After lengthy consideration and research, I have decided to postpone my "Poland South" plans to take a couple of weeks to make a run up through those former Soviet states. I will be "traveling light" with only my Mac pack and a small hand duffel. I will be leaving my big gear bag here in Gdynia and will pick it up when I come back.

It's certainly not "the season" to visit the Baltics, but I figured that as long as I am this close I might as well take advantage of the opportunity. I really don't know much about those countries, but they look interesting and will certainly be something different to explore. So, I will take a train to Warsaw in the morning on the the first leg and spend the weekend there. I expect to take a train on Monday to Vilnius, Lithuania and spend a few days there and in the area generally, then take another train to Riga, Latvia for the same kind of routine. From there I will move up the Baltic coast to Tallinn, Estonia for a few days with a possible hop across the water to Helsinki. Whenever I've had enough I will make my way back here to Gdynia, probably around the middle of the month.

So, Macgellan is rested, recharged and ready to be "Baltic Bound."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dram: Polish Pedestrian Crossing

Of all my fond memories of Gdynia, Poland, one of the most haunting -- in a good way -- will be the musical pedestrian crossings. Played in a "call and response" manner across the street -- with many different tunes playing at the various crossings -- they offer a unique audio backdrop to the cityscape. Here's a little video Dram to share the experience with you:

Friday, October 19, 2007

Dram: Gdansk Gang


Who are all these people, and what are they all doing together? Well, here's the story:

Captain Adam had read in the newspaper that Elke and Gustavo -- first and second from left -- were here in Gdynia, midway on their motorcycle trip from Argentina to Australia. Thinking I might be interested in checking out some "similar" voyagers, he sent me their website link (Re-Moto) from which I emailed them about the coincidence of our being in Gdynia at the same time and the possiblitly of getting together. Elke replied that they would enjoy a meet-up and that she had also heard from Maciej -- third from left -- another global motorcyclist who lives in Gdansk (MotoSyberia) and had invited all of us to have dinner with him and Ania -- lower left -- at their home.

We had a great time together, swapping stories, showing photos and videos, sharing experiences and savoring the company of others who really "get" what we are up to from similar perspectives. Although our modes of travel are different -- even their motorcycle experiences are very different -- our voyaging experiences have a lot in common. We partied... er, convened... until the wee hours and I look forward to keeping in touch with them going forward.

Thanks everyone for a really great evening!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Haircut Chronicle: #10 - Gdynia, Poland

Hc10gdynia1 Hc10gdynia2 Hc10gdynia3

#10 - October 18, 2007, Gdynia, Poland. After my two bad haircuts in Scotland -- about the only bad experiences I had in that wonderful country -- I gave my hair two months to grow out so there would be something to work with. I was looking very scruffy around the edges, so I scouted out a salon here in Gdynia that was doing a good business. I told to Andre that I wanted him to leave my hair as long as possible on top, explaining that my hair sticks out in all kinds of wild ways when it is too short. He assured me that he understood and went to work. Before I could even blink an eye, out came the clippers and huge tufts of my hair were hitting the floor. From then on, no matter my protestations, he kept trimming and trimming and trimming. Once again, I shall now let my hair grow out for another couple of months before I face the next dreaded installment of the "Haircut Chronicles." Cost: 22 Zloty ($8)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Logbook: Giddy in Gdynia

Giddygdynia1Captain Adam and his delightful daughter Mary picked me up Sunday morning for a day trip to Malbork to its visit the historic castle fortress complex. The weather was perfect and we had a nice hour-long drive through the lovely Polish countryside, while Mary practiced her already very good English with me. I have been informed -- and found -- that practically every Pole under thirty speaks at least some English, and many of them speak it more or less fluently. (A lucky break for me, because I have no Polish and am finding it very difficult to learn even a little of it!) The castle is remarkable, not only in its size and history, but also because it was severely damaged during WWII and has been extensively rebuilt in entirely authentic form. We had a very enjoyable and informative visit during which Captain Adam painstakingly translated the Polish guide's presentation for me. On the way back we stopped in Gdansk for a brief walk through the old town and a late lunch at Mary's favorite restaurant: KFC! It was a super day trip for me, especially because of the opportunity it gave me to spend time with Captain Adam and Mary. Back in Gdynia, I spent some time wandering around town, continuing my orientation of what's where and picking up some supplies before having a nice dinner of my favorite Polish soup then calling it a night.

The weather on Monday was very bad, so I spent most of the day inside and online, both catching up with the last of my back log of communications and beginning to research possibilities for the next phase of The Voyage going forward. Tuesday's weather was also pretty bad, so I did more research -- which I'll write about soon -- and stepped out during breaks in the rain to do some chores, gather train and travel information, have lunch, etc. Even in bad weather, Gdynia is a great place for me to be. I am very comfortable here, partly because the place I'm staying is so perfect -- small, quiet, friendly and inexpensive with free hi-speed wi-fi! -- but also because the city has a lot to offer, the people are very nice and, I have to admit, many of the Polish women are downright beautiful. I plan to stay here for at least another week while I enjoy the town, finish my recovery from the pace of the past few months and make my arrangements going forward.

Giddygdynia2After two days of miserable weather, Wednesday's stunning blue skies and delightfully warm temperature we like something from another world. Fully energized to explore, I headed out right after breakfast and walked around the entire city for about eight hours. After a comprehensive walk around the downtown area -- the city itself isn't really very big -- I headed down to the pier to check out the maritime museum then continued out for a walk along the shore. The beauty of Gdynia's beach surprised me -- I wouldn't have expected to find such a nice sandy beach on the shore of the Baltic Sea -- and it was fun to watch the locals enjoy what may be one of the last really nice weather days before winter sets in. I stopped at one of the charming seaside cafes for lunch and caught this photo of a woman making the most of the sun. Like most people who live in high latitudes, you take what you can get before winter's dim days and long dark nights arrive. After walking several miles down the shore walk, I climbed up the bluffs through residential areas and back into the city. I had dinner in a Sports Bar of all places, and had a blast cheering for the "home team" -- I still don't know who they are -- having snippets of conversation with excited young fans and drinking a few local beers. I may not understand much of the local language, but I know "Gooooooaaaaallll!!!" when I hear it! It was a lot of fun, and if I was "comfortable" here before, I am downright "giddy in Gdynia" now.

Today has been overcast and blustery, the variability of the weather being a sure sign that winter is on its way. I spent most of the day doing more research for moving forward -- it's actually pretty complicated, and I promise to fill you in as soon as I have a handle on it -- plus doing a few chores like getting a haircut which I will, of course, document and share for your enjoyment "shortly." All in all the past week has been about one-third "recovery", one-third "research" and one-third "exploration." Maybe not the most exciting week from an outside perspective, but one that I needed to be just that way and one that I couldn't be happier about. Stay tuned for what I expect will be some pretty big news and plans, coming your way soon from The Voyage of Macgellan!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dram: Do You Know "J"?

DoyouknowjWhile on a long walk around Gdynia today, I encountered these two ladies -- seen here walking away -- who came up to me and started speaking in rapid-fire Polish. By means of my customary helpless shrug, I informed them that I do not speak the language. (In fact, I don't even speak enough Polish to say "I don't speak Polish." So far, I only know how to say "Hello, Large, Coffee, Please, Thank You, Goodbye." Go figure!) Apparently undeterred, one of them asked me if I speak German and I replied that I speak only a little of it. Seeming to be greatly encouraged by my response, she proceeded to speak in rapid-fire German, asking me -- as best as I could reckon -- if I had seen or knew something or somebody with a name that begins with the letter "J". In my very limited German I replied that I was sorry, I didn't understand and that I don't know anything or anybody here. She then reached into her bag and pulled out a Jehovah's Witness pamphlet. For once, my complete lack of ability to understand other languages came in handy. I gave them another helpless shrug and they immediately walked away.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Logbook: Stockholm - PolFerry - Gdansk - Gdynia

Polferry1I was up early Wednesday morning to see Inga off to work and to thank her for all her gracious hospitality during my stay in Stockholm. Thanks, Inga! I then spent the morning doing all of the usual sorting, packing and organizing that goes along with "making a move" on The Voyage, followed by a quick lunch. A metro bus ride to the central train station later, I caught a ride to the PolFerry terminal in Nynashamn -- about an hour south of Stockholm -- for my overnight sailing to Gdansk, Poland. According to the schedule, the train would make a direct run to Nynashamn, so I settled down to read my book. About half an hour later, I didn't pay much attention when the train stopped at a station and sat with the doors open for a few minutes. I was pretty engrossed in my book and -- trusting that the schedule was correct -- simply figured we were waiting for the track to clear or something. A few minutes after that, the little alarm bell in my brain went off that something was wrong and I looked up to see that my train was no longer going on to Nynashamn, but was headed back to Stockholm instead. In a flash, I grabbed my gear and jumped off the train just as the doors were closing then hustled across the platform onto another train, the one that was actually headed on to Nynashamn. The doors closed and off we went, with me shaking my head once again in contemplation of whether I have developed some kind of "six sense" about when things are "more unusual than normal" or whether I was just lucky. In either case, I arrived in Nynashamn a half hour later and followed the signs for a 500 meter walk to the ferry terminal.

Polferry2The PolFerry ship to Gdansk looked pretty much like the other huge ferries I have taken -- e.g. from Canria to Cadiz and from Newcastle to Amsterdam -- but my experience on board was very different. For one thing, the ship seemed practically deserted by comparison to the others, with none of the lines of people boarding and few people milling about on board. Also, I'm pretty sure I was the only English speaking passenger and virtually certain I was the only American. Without much trouble I found my little cabin, dumped my gear inside and went up on deck to enjoy the views and our departure. To the sounds of spoken Polish, the smells of sausages on the grill and a very respectable level of noise and celebration from such a small crowd of passengers, we set off on time at six o'clock. Within moments I had made yet another very dramatic shift in cultures -- from Scandinavian to Polish -- and had a nice moment reflecting on how it has become fairly common and comfortable for me to do so. It seems I've either become accustomed to "culture shock" or simply numb to it.

Polferry3It was a beautiful night for a proper sea cruise, and I enjoyed a stunning sunset on deck before going back to my room to "settle in" -- a euphemism I use to describe stashing my gear in a corner -- and pouring myself a dram. I checked out the practically empty "restaurant" but couldn't make any sense of the menu, then surveyed the "cafeteria" but didn't really like the looks of what I saw so I finally opted for a grilled sausage and a beer back up on deck. Might as well immerse myself in my new culture, right? After that I spent a little more time on deck -- I think you know by now how much I enjoy the sea air, especially on a clear, cold night -- then went back to my cabin, watched an episode of my favorite TV show on iTunes, read a few pages of my book and turned out the lights. There was a surprising amount of partying noise in the passageway from such a small number of passengers, but the hum of the ship quickly had its usual effect on me and I was sound asleep pretty quickly.

Polferry4I was up pretty early Thursday morning and -- coffee in hand -- went on deck to catch a misty view an unknown Baltic Sea island with a remarkable sandy beach and the promise of a very chilly seaside experience. I had breakfast of sorts in the cafeteria then shopped in the duty free store -- to replenish my scotch supply -- before going to my room, preparing my gear for disembarkation and going back up on deck to enjoy arrival in Gdansk. Immigrations was a breeze with so few people and I emerged into the ferry terminal to find Captain Adam -- my captain and friend from my days on the Polar Star in Antarctica and the South Atlantic -- waiting for me. I had spoken with the Captain way back in April about the possibility of a visit to his home town of Gdynia during his time ashore between cruises and -- beyond being enthusiastic about me doing so -- he had very graciously scouted out an excellent little place for me to stay. So, after a happy reunion in a very different place from the last time we saw each other, we set out in his car to drive from Gdansk to Gdynia some 25 kilometers away. Along the drive we caught up on all the gossip and stopped briefly at just a few places like Westerplatte -- shown here -- which is the memorial site in Gdansk of the actual beginning of World War II. We also drove past the birthplace of the Solidarity movement, through the trendy resort town of Sopot and along the beach in Gdynia. After this excellent little orientation drive we ended up at my excellent accommodations -- see the Villa Admiral link in Recommendations at the left -- and made plans to get together some time this weekend.

I spent Thursday afternoon catching up with myself and others online, then had my "new favorite" Polish soup for dinner. I spent a little time yesterday scouting around downtown Gdynia, but I have to admit I spent most of the time taking care of some personal and "other" business, as well as happily chilling out in my lovely, quiet room. I've spent time today catching up with this website and going out for some brief walks, but I've again given myself some time to relax and recover from what has really been a very fast-paced, exhausting few weeks on The Voyage. In the next few days I intend to do some local exploration and start to plan out my itinerary for the next month or so. I'm very happy to be in Poland, absolutely delighted with my situation and downright giddy at the prospect of complete spontaneity going forward. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Musing: Passport Stamping

PassportstampingI had some "fun" with the Swedish immigrations man in Nynashamn prior to boarding the PolFerry to Gdansk. Examining my passport, he was unable to find the stamp he normally looks for to determine how long someone has been in his country, namely the "entry into Sweden" stamp that most people get at the airport. He asked me how long I had been in Sweden and how I had gotten there, so I told him I had arrived by train from Norway last week. Unable to find a stamp for Norway, he inquired how long I had been there and how I had gotten there. Again, I explained that I had arrived by train the week before last and -- anticipating his inability to find a stamp for Denmark -- explained that I had arrived in that country by train from Germany a few days earlier without a stamp, and from BeNeLux before that where I had arrived by ferry from the UK. I told him I had a stamp into Amsterdam from a month ago and said with a bit of a laugh, "I had to ask for that one. Otherwise all you'd have is my stamp entering Canaria six months ago!"

He gave me the universal expression of "What the...?" so I gave him a brief synopsis of The Voyage and explained about traveling only on the surface of the earth, etc. After a little further dialogue, he seemed satisfied with my story and I asked him for a stamp to update my passport. He smiled and said, "Oh, don't worry... You're getting a stamp."

Besides the entertainment value of this experience, it got me musing about "Freedom of Movement" in the European Union. As a policy, it allows EU nationals to no longer have to deal with all the different multi-national immigrations issues. They just flash their passports and walk on through. It also means that there are many fewer immigrations officials at border crossing points. I have commented before in the Logbook about how it seems like "once you're in, you're in" and you can go anywhere you want anytime you want to. The advantages to international commerce, culture, etc. are, I think, pretty obvious: Open borders among nations improves the human experience.

In some ways, this less stringent immigration policy is also good for non-Eu nationals. There are fewer stops along your route, fewer places you have to show your passport, less time screwing around with documentation and more time enjoying your travels. For long-term, long-distance travelers like me, however, there is a bit of a downside: Not having proof of your entry/exit dates can be a problem when you are generally allowed only 90 days in EU countries without a visa. If you only have a stamp from six months ago, how do you prove you haven't been in your current country ever since?

So, while I have generally avoided getting unnecessary stamps in my passport -- mostly because it's too "touristy" but also because, after all, there is only so much space even in my "extra page" passport -- I have learned the value of asking for one from time to time.

While I still laugh at the extreme nonsense of having over a dozen stamps within a three week period from Chile and Argentina -- as a result of my going "back-and-forth" so often between those moderately unfriendly neighbors during my time in Fin del Mundo -- I'm not laughing quite so much as I once did about the other extreme of having practically no stamps from my many, many border crossings in the EU. It could have been a problem, and I'm going to be a little more energetic about getting stamped even if it is "touristy."

So, you probably will not be surprised to learn that I now have an entry stamp into Gdansk, Poland -- dated today -- in my well worn an rapidly filling passport. "Touristy" or not, I'm good to go for another 90 days!

Lost In Translation: Gdansk, Poland

ClosedoorpreciselyCabin Door Sign

Ferry to Gdansk

October 2007

The door was nothing fancy, but it was a little difficult to close and latch securely. So, I figured that must be what "precisely" relates to. I didn't get keel hauled, so either I did it right, nobody noticed or nobody really cared!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Logbook: Stockholm

Stockholm1The train ride from Oslo to Stockholm last Thursday was indeed very scenic, and I had an easy, enjoyable six hour journey. My friend Inga met me at the station in Stockholm and guided me on the subway and bus to her flat where we dropped my gear then hit the town. After a brisk orientation tour around part of the city, we went to dinner at her favorite local pub where, of all things, it was "Oktoberfest" night in honor of a friend of the owner who was in town from Austria. We dined on authentic Bavarian food and enjoyed traditional beer, music and dancing. Some folks were even dressed in appropriate costumes! It seemed just like the celebrations I've been to in Bavaria, except of course for the fact that I was in Sweden. Honestly folks, you can't make this stuff up.

Stockholm2For the past five days -- which Inga was kind enough to take off from her work so we would have plenty of time together -- we did a pretty thorough exploration of Stockholm and some of its environs. When the weather was good we were outside, roaming around the city and enjoying its many charms. When the weather wasn't so good, we stayed in and had long conversations or went out to enjoy authentic Swedish meals. Inga was quite impressed that I eagerly ate and enjoyed everything she ordered for me, including blood pudding which has a less than popular reputation with most visitors. All in all I found Stockholm to be a pleasant place to be, quite attractive in many ways, and relatively calm for a large city.

Stockholm3One of the highlights of our exploration was a day trip out to the "archipelago." I was completely unaware that only an hour or so by boat from downtown Stockholm there are several thousand small islands, many of which are privately owned either for seasonal or full-time use. Some of them are so tiny that they are barely big enough to build a cabin on, but some of them are large enough to accommodate several substantial houses. A variety of companies offer regular boat and ferry service to the islands, so it is an easy place to get to and an wonderful place to be. The fantasy of owning one's own private island is actually possible in the archipelago... for a price, I am sure. We docked at one of the larger island villages, had a delightful lunch then enjoyed the boat ride back. It was a perfect weather day, and I enjoyed both being on the water and the crisp fall air.

I really don't have a lot of insights to offer about Stockholm. Mostly it is a large, historic city with a distinctive Scandinavian style. It seems a little dirty and I sensed that it might not be completely safe to walk around late at night, but it is otherwise quite comfortable. Stockholm is less expensive than Oslo, but it still is not cheap by any means.

Inga is going back to work tomorrow, and I am going to be moving on. My swing through Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm has been very brief and has given me just a glimpse of Scandinavia. I could see myself coming back to enjoy the country side sometime, but for now it is time to continue The Voyage. I've been as far north as I will get for a while, so I'll be heading generally southward as autumn moves into winter. Tomorrow I'll be on my way to Gdansk, Poland.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Logbook: Oslonomics

When I have a long-distance travel day ahead of me, I have developed a routine of making arrangements in advance for the first night at my destination. It's a good routine that I recommend, because the risk of booking in a bad place and having to move the next day is easily outweighed by the convenience of not having to hassle with looking around immediately upon arrival and the peace of mind that comes from knowing you've got a place to stay lined up. During my rainy days in Copenhagen I tried to execute this plan for my arrival in Oslo, but I was unable to find anyplace online that was in my price target range. Knowing that I would be arriving here in Oslo relatively early in the afternoon, I decided to try the "wing it" approach and find a place when I got here. So, after a pleasant train ride through lovely Swedish/Norwegian countryside, I arrived at Oslo central station and stashed my gear in the baggage room then hit the streets to find a place to stay.

For about an hour I scouted around the central station area and inquired at hotels of all shapes and sizes, pretty quickly discovering that the reason I couldn't find a room in my price range online is that there don't appear to be any such rooms here. I finally took a room at about twice my usual rate and chalked it up to "just another little surprise" on The Voyage. After checking in I hit the streets again to find some dinner and experienced even more sticker shock. A steak dinner would have cost me $100 at any number of so-so looking restaurants, and I have no idea what it would have cost in a fancy one. By the time I'd looked at a dozen places it was getting late -- and I was hungry -- so I settled for a glass of wine and a plate of food for $70 at a pub.

Prices in Oslo aren't just high, they are crazy high. At first I thought I must be doing the currency conversion math wrong, but I after double checking it with my calculator I found I'd done it right. To give you an idea of what I mean about prices, here are some of the results of my investigation: A medium sized Burger King Whopper meal costs $15. A mass market paperback book is $18. A current trade hard cover book costs between $50-$70. A cup of coffee is $5 and a bottle of water will set you back $4. Really, I'm not making this up. If these were the prices quoted in a MasterCard ad, the closing line would have to be: "Getting out of Oslo with anything left in your wallet... Priceless!"

Oslonomics1If you do the math on the sign in the picture, you will calculate that gas here costs over $8 per gallon. Gas has been in the $6-$8 a gallon range throughout Europe, but the over $8 price here is the highest I've seen anywhere. What makes this odd is that Norway has massive amount of North Sea oil and is one of the world's leading exporters. I did some research on this and found out that the government keeps the price of gas high to dissuade people from owning cars and driving as part of its long term energy and finance programs. Along the way, I found out a lot of other little tidbits about economics around here -- including that the government has put some of the oil revenue in a "trust fund" to have available when the oil runs out -- but I don't want to get too much into what you can easily Google if you are interested here in the Logbook. I'll just say that Oslo is the most expensive place I have ever been in my life, and this had an impact on my appreciation and enjoyment of the city.

Oslonomics2Thankfully, walking is free here. I have spent much of the past two days walking around the city, getting a feel for its urban atmosphere. Although Oslo isn't a "big" city compared to many I've been in, it certainly has a big city feeling to it. There is a lot of hustle, bustle and noise, and there seems to be a lot of construction going on. The buildings are a mix of big new steel and glass high rises along with smaller, older stone edifices that are probably destined to be torn down. There also seems to be a very diverse population, not just the prototypical blondes legend would lead you to expect. I don't know how much of Norway's 4.6 million population lives here, but I suspect it is a pretty large percentage.

Oslonomics3On the positive side, Oslo has some green spaces and historical sites that offer relative peace and quiet. Also, it is next to the water and from the bluffs of the old fortress you can get a beautiful view that inspires you to go explore it. All in all I can't say I really like Oslo, but I can't say I don't like it either. I do have to admit that the cost of being here dissuades me from wanting to spend more time checking it out. So, early in the morning I will take what is claimed to be a very beautiful train ride over to Stockholm. I am looking forward to visiting with my friend Inga who claims to have arranged a variety of Swedish exploration opportunities for me!

Monday, October 01, 2007

Dram: Thank The Newspaper

Here's a little tale from The Voyage that I think you'll enjoy:

The first leg of my Copenhagen-Oslo train ride was a no brainer. I arrived in the junction station of Goteborg (Sweden)at about noon, with 45 minutes before my connection to Oslo. I put my trusty PayPal card in the ATM machine and got some Swedish cash -- I'm out of Euro-land now -- to buy a sandwich, then settled down on a bench to eat and watch for my train to be assigned a track number. By 12:30 I had finished my lunch, but no track had yet been assigned. By 12:40 all of the trains on the board except mine had tracks listed for them and I started to get suspicious. It was then that I noticed something odd in the "remarks" area of the listing for my train. There was a word that included "busse" in it with the numbers "51-57" following it. I started thinking maybe there was a bus replacement for my train -- you may recall this has happened to me before (can you remember where?) -- so I asked a young woman to read the sign for me and sure enough, my train was now a bus leaving from gates 51-57.

So, I started walking down the station concourse at 12:42 and figured to myself that it was going to be a close call. A minute later I reached the end of the terminal at gate number 50. There were no more gates and no signs that I could see pointing to any. The time was 12:44 and I start thinking I'd be missing my ride, but I also thought about all the times things have worked out on The Voyage just because I kept going and let them play out. After exiting the end of the terminal and walking around the corner, I spotted a small, temporary sign behind some construction equipment with the numbers "51-57" on it. Now a couple of minutes past my scheduled 12:45 departure time, I walked briskly along a lengthy sidewalk and turned a corner to see a huge bus parking area that was completely empty except for one bus down at the very end. Pretty sure I had missed my bus -- or maybe not even gotten to the right place to catch it -- I persisted still and walked over to that lonely bus.

There was a driver reading a newspaper sitting behind the wheel. I figured it was his lunch break or something, but I also figured he might be able to give me some info or help me figure out what to do. I knocked on his window and asked him if he knew how I could catch a ride to Oslo. His reply was almost comical: "Get on the bus. I am the bus to Oslo." With yet another chuckle to myself, I climbed on board and took a seat on an otherwise empty bus. The driver closed the door, put the bus in gear and started driving. I was, as you might imagine, intrigued. When I asked the driver if he was going to drive me all the way to Oslo by myself, he told me the whole story of what was going on.

Construction on the tracks made it necessary for my train to leave from a station about an hour down the road. Three or four buses had been on hand to take passengers there, and they had all left except him because he was waiting behind to see if any more connecting passengers showed up. None had, and he was just about to head back to the barn empty when I knocked on his window. I thanked him for waiting and he said, "Don't thank me, thank the newspaper. If the article I was reading was any shorter, I would have been finished and gone by now."

We had a good laugh, then a nice ride to the other station where I got on the train that was also waiting for me to continue on my way to Oslo. Thank the newspaper.

Logbook: Coping in Copenhagen

Copenhagen1The ride from Emden to Copenhagen on Friday was just another episode of efficient train travel in Europe: An hour's ride to Bremen with just enough of a stop to get a cup of coffee, then another hour or so to Hamburg with an immediate connection on to Copenhagen. On this last leg of the trip, a really cool thing happened: I had looked at the map and seen that there was some water along our route, but I figured there must have been some kind of tunnel. To my surprise, the train rolled straight onto a ferry! It was like pulling into a train station except that there were cars, buses and big trucks parked next to us. We all got off the train and went upstairs where a huge number of people were eating, drinking and shopping in a variety of duty free stores. It was borderline pandemonium!

Copenhagen2Happy to have an unexpected -- if brief -- boat ride, I went out on deck and enjoyed having a long look at a turbulent sea. The wind was blowing a pretty good gale, but I enjoyed the ride and the relative solitude away from the crowd. After about 45 minutes we went back to the car-bus-truck-train deck, re-boarded and rolled off the boat to continue our trip. The remainder of the ride into Copenhagen was uneventful and I arrived there a little after four o'clock. I can't say my first impression of the city was very positive because it looked like most other big, gray, dirty cities I've seen. I can blame some of it on the weather which was pretty cold and rainy, and some of it on the fact that it was also pretty dark due to the combination of time of day, season and latitude. I completely missed the fall last year because I was in Central America, but I'm being reacquainted with it in grand style now.

I checked into the little hotel I had arranged, went to my so-so room and discovered no internet connection. So, I dropped my gear and went down to the lobby to go online, check my mail and update my map. For the first time, I had trouble getting my map uploaded and took it as a sign that I was in a not-so-good place for me. I went out to get some dinner, then scouted around the area for a different hotel. I found a generic Comfort Hotel with room for the next two days, so I booked and went back to the other place to crash.

The weather on Saturday was pretty miserable, with heavy rain, biting wind and dark skies. I packed up my gear and moved over to the new place where I found an excellent web connection in my room to fix the map and do a variety of other stuff. Partly because of the weather and partly because I was due for some more down time, I didn't do any exploration of Copenhagen. I did brave the elements to go back to the train station, figure out the metro system and catch a ride to the ferry terminal to try to arrange my passage from Stockholm to Gdansk next week. The metro dropped me off a few blocks from the ferry ticket office and the rain had let up a bit for my walk but, as you have probably already guessed, the ticket office was closed and would not be open again on the weekend. You will understand if I was not terribly surprised and had yet another good chuckle to myself as I retraced my route back to the hotel for a quiet night in.

Copenhagen3Copenhagen4_2Yesterday was still pretty bad in terms of weather, but I was fine with it. I slept in, read a great thriller cover to cover (see my Amazon recommendations to the right) and just hung out. After two days in Copenhagen, I can't say I've seen any of the city except the fairly seedy area around the train station and a bit of the ferry docks. I didn't even take any pictures! I'm not disappointed by it because I really only stopped there as a waypoint going north. I am now on another train, heading to Oslo for just a couple of days before continuing on to Stockholm later in the week to visit with Inga who was part of the group at the castle in Agel, France back in April. I'm looking forward to seeing her again and continuing some of the conversations we started months ago. We will be without our precious dog Achilles to keep up company, but we will try to carry on without him!